“You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendour. Like Jeeves, Wodehouse stands alone, and analysis is useless.” Stephen Fry
It’s a bad year for the flu here in New York City and I too have caught the ‘wily virus’ with its trademark hacking cough and leaking snoot. I was feeling of need of some sunshine until John kindly bought Full Moon by P.G. Wodehouse, a novel of the Blandings Castle series. One chapter in and I was soon chuckling, coughing hysterically, gasping for air and generally enjoying myself as much as possible.
Appreciation of P.G. Wodehouse is a sacred and pleasant duty. Consider this, a typically masterful excerpt from the first chapter of Full Moon:
The ninth earl was down by the pigsty near the kitchen garden, draped in his boneless way over the rail of the bijou residence of Empress of Blandings, his amiable sow, twice in successive years a popular winner in the Fat Pigs class at the Shropshire Agricultural Show.
The ecstasy which always came to the vague and woolen-headed peer when in the society of this noble animal was not quite complete, for she had withdrawn for the night to a sort of covered wigwam in the background and he could not see her. But he could hear her deep, regular breathing, and he was drinking it in as absorbedly as if it had been something from the Queen’s Hall conducted by Sir Henry Wood, when the scent of a powerful cigar told him that he was no longer alone. Adjusting his pince-nez, he was astonished to behold the soldierly figure of Colonel Wedge.
The reason he was astonished to behold Colonel Wedge was that he knew the other had gone to London on the previous day to lend his support to the annual banquet of the Loyal Sons of Shropshire. But it was not long before his astute mind had hit upon a possible explanation of his presence in the grounds of Blandings Castle – viz., that he might have come back. And such was indeed the case.
‘Ah, Egbert,’ he said, courteously uncoiling himself.
Going for a stroll to stretch his legs after his long journey, Colonel Wedge had supposed himself to be alone with Nature. The shock of discovering that what he had taken for a pile of old clothes was alive and a relation by marriage caused him to speak a little sharply.
‘Good God, Clarence, is that you? What on earth are you doing out here at this time of night?’
Lord Emsworth had no secrets from his nearest and dearest. He replied that he was listening to his pig, and the statement caused his companion to wince as if some old wound had troubled him.
Egbert Wedge had long held the view that the head of the family into which he had married approached more closely to the purely cuckoo every time he saw him, but this seemed to mark a bigger stride in that direction than usual.
‘Listening to your pig?’ he said, in an almost awe-struck voice, and paused for a moment, digesting this information. ‘You’d better come in and go to bed. You’ll be getting lumbago again.’
No wonder he was and is so revered by so many writers. Here are some choice quotes in praise of the Master:
Evelyn Waugh: “Mr. Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.” BBC broadcast, 1961
Rex Stout: “He always used the right words, and nearly always used them well. As an entertainer he was unsurpassed. While apparently being merely playful he often made acute and subtle comments about human character and behavior.” (John McAleer, Rex Stout. Little, Brown, 1977, p.577.)
Roger Kimball:“No writer has given me more merriment and delight.”
Eileen Jones: “Wodehouse was the man who gave us the Jeeves and Wooster chronicles, the Blandings Castle saga, the Mulliner tales, the Ukridge stories, the great stuff on Hollywood and golf and boxing and so on, God knows how many dozen volumes that he cranked out with incredible steadiness from the 1910s to the 70s. On top of that, he was a big deal in Anglo-American musical-comedy theater of the 1920s and 30s. Considered the Grand Old Man of 20th c. lyricists, Wodehouse was an early partner of composer Jerome Kern, as well as Ira Gershwin’s personal mentor and hero. If you care about such things, that’s very big stuff. One stellar career in an impossibly competitive field is amazing; Wodehouse had two going simultaneously in two impossible fields, popular literature and theater.”
Hillaire Belloc: “His object is comedy in the most modern sense of that word: that is, his object is to present the laughable, and he does this with such mastery and skill that he nearly always approaches, and often reaches, perfection.”
Douglas Adams: “Wodehouse is the greatest comic writer ever.”
George Orwell even felt compelled to write an essay titled “In Defence of Wodehouse”, in which he argues the old duffer had no political awareness so it was ridiculous to call him a Nazi sympathizer: http://www.drones.com/orwell.html
So what were his craft secrets? Well, by all accounts he was a ‘writing machine’. It’s interesting to learn a bit about his methods from this interview with Gerald Clarke for The Paris Review (Issue 64, Winter 1975). Wodehouse was 91-and-a-half years old at the time:
What is your working schedule these days?
I still start the day off at seven-thirty. I do my daily dozen exercises, have breakfast, and then go into my study. When I am between books, as I am now, I sit in an armchair and think and make notes. Before I start a book I’ve usually got four hundred pages of notes. Most of them are almost incoherent. But there’s always a moment when you feel you’ve got a novel started. You can more or less see how it’s going to work out. After that it’s just a question of detail.
You block everything out in advance, then?
Yes. For a humorous novel you’ve got to have a scenario, and you’ve got to test it so that you know where the comedy comes in, where the situations come in . . . splitting it up into scenes (you can make a scene of almost anything) and have as little stuff in between as possible.
Is it really possible to know in a scenario where something funny is going to be?
Yes, you can do that. Still, it’s curious how a scenario gets lost as you go along. I don’t think I’ve ever actually kept completely to one. If I’ve got a plot for a novel worked out and I can really get going on it, I work all the time. I work in the morning, and then I probably go for a walk or something, and then I have another go at the novel. I find that from four to seven is a particularly good time for working. I never work after dinner. It’s the plots that I find so hard to work out. It takes such a long time to work one out. I like to think of some scene, it doesn’t matter how crazy, and work backward and forward from it until eventually it becomes quite plausible and fits neatly into the story.
How many words do you usually turn out on a good day?
Well, I’ve slowed up a good deal now. I used to write about two thousand words. Now I suppose I do about one thousand.
Do you work seven days a week?
Oh, yes, rather. Always.
Do you type or do you write in longhand?
I used to work entirely on the typewriter. But this last book I did sitting in a lawn chair and writing by hand. Then I typed it out. Much slower, of course. But I think it’s a pretty good method; it does pretty well.
Do you go back and revise very much?
Yes. And I very often find that I’ve got something which ought to come in another place, a scene which originally I put in chapter two and then when I get to chapter ten, I feel it would come in much better there. I’m sort of molding the whole time.